Every breath you take—A close-up and personal look at the problem of halitosis

The Toronto Sun

Every breath you take—A close-up and personal look at the problem of halitosis

By Marilyn Linton
The Toronto Sun (15 January 2006)

Dr. Harold Katz comes into Toronto this week like a breath of fresh air. The bad breath expert, armed with a bad breath measuring device called a Halimeter and a bag of onions, is here to tackle the subject of jungle mouth. Mouth rot, dog breath, halitosis is always on the tip of his tongue.

“How’s your own breath?” I asked him last week during a 7:30 a.m. phone interview. “Excellent!” he sang. “I never have morning breath.”

Well, the rest of the world does. North Americans spend half a billion dollars a year on products to freshen their breath, and that includes the line of fresheners developed by Katz — the TheraBreath System. The former L.A.dentist who has a degree in microbiology will be measuring the monkey breath of various Toronto volunteers — media included — during a promotional tour.

He was moved to research bad breath when his 13-year-old daughter had a case of it over a decade ago. Until then, the theory was that bad breath originated in your gut. “But that made no sense,” Katz said, “because whenever she had the problem, her tongue was white or coated.”

He eventually discovered research done at the University of British Columbia where a link was made between smelly breath and sulfur-producing mouth bacteria.

These bacteria, which live within the surface of the tongue and in the throat, assist in breaking down proteins for digestion. Under certain conditions, such as dry mouth, or when foods like onion, garlic or curry are eaten, these bacteria create chemicals such as stinky hydrogen sulfide. A good reason for not having to eat your Brussel sprouts is that they cause bad breath.

Adults who drink a lot of alcohol have bad breath: Bacteria gorge themselves on the sugars in the alcohol and the alcohol itself promotes dry mouth, which, in turn breeds more bacteria. Anyone who loves dairy foods is encouraging these nasty bacteria. Same with kids who thrive on sugary beverages.

A lot about nice breath has to do with spit. Saliva, which contains oxygen, is a natural breath freshener. Teachers are particularly prone to bad breath by the afternoon when their mouths are talked dry. When Katz opened his first California Breath Clinic years ago, he was surprised at the number of eye doctors, nurses, and dentists who came. You can see why anyone who talks a lot or works face-to-face with people might want to test their own breath.

But since most of us are unlikely to have a Halimeter on hand, how would we do that? “That old trick of blowing into your hand is only a great way to smell your hand,” laughed Katz. Instead, he recommends the “wrist lick.” You lick the back of your hand, let it dry, then smell. “If you have bad breath, the sulfur compounds will be present,” said the breathologist. “However, you can get used to your own ‘ground zero’ breath smell so that it becomes difficult to compare.”

Don’t worry, others will let you know. If you find that the people you’re talking to do “the quick jolt back,” or if your friends are constantly offering to share their gum or mints (which, by the way, only mask the odour), your breath might be swampy. Katz’s breath freshening system is a super-oxygenated version of table salt, he explained. “It puts a straightjacket around nasty bacteria.” While there are other mouth rinses and breath purifiers on the market, many of which work, the difference in his is an absence of mouth-drying alcohol. Drinking plenty of water, practicing good oral hygiene and lightly scraping the tongue helps to control bad breath, the doc said.

Like dandruff, the only thing bad breath is going to kill is a relationship. But here’s an area that, curiously, is virtually ignored by most dentists who treat it like “the elephant in the room.”

Katz agreed: “One patient asked his dentist, ‘Doctor, do I have bad breath?’ The dentist replied, ‘I don’t smell anything.’ And the patient says, ‘Well, take your mask off and smell again!’ Sometimes the dentist just doesn’t want to offend his patient.”

In the meantime, here comes Dr. Katz with his Halimeter and a bag full of onions.